Introduction

This website contains the complete contents of a thesis I wrote.  This work was undertaken to partially satisfy the requirements towards earning the degree of master of arts in education at Benedictine University in Lisle, Illinois.  I decided to register this URL and post my thesis so as to share its findings.  I found the results of my research to be interesting.  The findings were not what I expected.  Perhaps you too will find them interesting or possibly helpful in some way.

How This Came About
I entered Benedictine University in 2003 to earn my Illinois teaching certification.  Benedictine offers an accelerated teachers' education program for experienced professionals that hold BAs or BSs in fields related to science or math.  The program leads to a Illinois teachers certification in science or math.  Because of my engineering background, I chose the math certification however I had so much coursework in science that I was also endorsed in physics, chemistry, computer science and a few other areas.  Benedictine requires students earning their MA in education to complete a thesis.  I never realized how this part of the program requirements would come to dominate my life.

I actually began work on my thesis in 2004.  I remember my research methods professor telling us over and over again to keep it simple.  He repeatedly and rhetorically asked, do you want to get fancy or do you want to graduate?  Of course I wanted to graduate but I also needed a topic that would hold my attention through the grueling literature review, the data gathering and analysis and the development of my findings.

In the course of the research methods class, we were expected to complete the first three chapters of our theses.  So I had to settle on a topic.  At the time I had only been teaching a short while.  What did I really know about teaching?  I didn't have any burning questions I felt needed answering.  So I did what I suspect grad students have done immemorial.  I settled.  My topic was marginally interesting to me and I hoped the same for my professor.

Shortly after completing the research methods class, I lost interest in my thesis topic.  I shelved my thesis and focused on becoming the best teacher I could.  Eventually I completed all my coursework.  All that stood between me and my MAEd was the dreaded thesis.  By this time I had gained hash marks of experience.  With my experience came the realization that there was a gnawing question which kept creeping into my consciousness.  This re-ignited my interest and made me believe that I could actually research and write something of substance.  So, what was the nagging question....?

By now you know it has something to do with Illinois' Standards Achievement Test (ISAT), the 8th grade math portion to be more specific.  But what in particular was I interested in researching about this portion of the high stakes test?  Allow me to explain.

In the years following my anointment a secondary math teacher I suffered through numerous meetings designed to help me help students prepare for the math portion of Illinois high-stakes achievement test (called ISAT).  Every "expert" had their own "magic bullet" that promised higher performance.  Suggestions such as longer math periods, more experienced teachers, smaller class sizes, better attendance rates, more money spent per student, and so on were typical.  There was and is no shortage of suggestions for things that could improve math aptitude on the ISAT.  This was my "AHa" moment.

It dawned on me that I might be able to offer some valid insight into what helps kids do better in math.  After all, I spend six hours a day on the frontline with students.  Some of the so-called experts haven't been in a classroom in decades!  At the same time, I wanted my "opinion" to be more than an opinion.  I wanted my opinion to be the direct result of research I performed.  Thus, my position would constitute more than an opinion.  It would in fact be a reflection of my findings. 

I began by asking what environmental factors are (possibly) important to math achievement?  As just mentioned, there are almost as many answers to that question as there are experts posing it.  So I decided to look at what the State of Illinois considered important.  This turned out to be pretty easy since the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) requires every public school in the state to file an annual report card.  These report cards all have the same data categories (metrics).  There are more than two dozen unique metrics that every school must submit.  This narrowed down the environmental factors to a list of the items the State of Illinois finds important enough to require from every school, every year.

I reviewed the list, rejected any items that didn't apply to my research age group (8th grade) and kept the rest.  The list emerged as 18 environmental factors.  Interestingly, I was able to subdivide the 18 items into two 9-item lists that I refer to as "controllable" and "non-controllable" factors.  And so the stage was set.  I committed myself to analyze 18 different factors to determine whether they influence 8th grade ISAT math passing percentages and, if they did, to what extent they mattered.

This was not to be a meta-analysis (research on someone else's research).  This was to be completely original.  For source data, I chose the ISBE report cards, since they already encapsulated all the data I needed.  The only other decision I needed to make was the scope of the research.  Would I review a handful of schools?  Should I include the gigungus Chicago Public School (CPS) system?  Should I just do my teaching county?  In the end, I decided to do entire of northeastern Illinois from the Wisconsin border to the Indiana border.  However, I did omit the Chicago Public School system from my study scope.  My reason for omitting the CPS reports came from other researchers findings.  Some researchers reported problems with CPS report cards.  I did not want to open this can of worms.

How complete was my source data?  My decision to do all of northeastern Illinois amounted to more than 250 middle and junior high schools throughout six counties.  This amounted to 8th grade ISAT math scores covering more than 55,000 students.  To the consternation of my thesis advisor and my wife, I disappeared into a data-gathering black hole for more than a year.  When I emerged, I felt enlightened and proud of the due diligence I performed in pursuit of my research question.  The research data and math analyses that backs my findings amounted to an 18-dimension problem.  What a rush!

My complete results are summarized in the Results Summary section.  

John A. Tomczak
BSEE (1986), MBA (1988), MSCS (1998), MAEd (2010)
Brookfield, IL, 2011
jtomczak@ISATMathStudy.com

Visits